My mother took work outside our home to help make ends meet. That left me and my siblings to Grandmother's care. We did not mind; When you grow up as we did, you learn the necessity of hard work. And because we were poor, pocket money was something of a luxury. We had to use our own initiative to get any.
I was too young to baby-sit like my elder sisters, too young to help on the farm on weekends like my brother. The one thing I could do was scour the ditches and back ways for returnable pop bottles, each of which brought in a shiny nickel.
One autumn in that dusty, sleepy prairie childhood I remember very well. My older siblings had to return to school (or "jail," as my brother put it), and I savored each day of my freedom. This was the last year I would have such a luxury, and what better way to spend it than by making my fortune? While my mother waited on farmers and deliverymen at the local coffee shop, my grandmother had charge of me.
We spent half the time in the dusty corner store where she worked three days a week for Mr. MacIntyre. It was wall-to-wall delights for a 5-year-old girl. There was a pickle jar - glass, and full of brine - from which, for two cents, you could delight your taste buds with Grandmother's homemade garlic dills. I swept floors and washed the windows of the old shop for two-cent pickles.
But I especially loved cleaning behind the counter where the jars of candy awaited a coin: blue fish, licorice sticks, peppermint swirls, and toffees. The pop machine held the most delicious cream soda. But I needed cash to partake of such delicacies. So, with grandmother's permission, I sallied forth on the great nickel bottle search.
Keeping the store in sight, I scoured the fields and steps of buildings for the elusive empty containers. I watched like a hawk while farmhands finished their last swallows of pop, and I hounded folks door to door for empties. The bottle search kept me occupied during the long hours, and soon I had enough for a small bag of candy. Every day I repeated this task, and I became one of Grandmother's regular customers.
One day while out on my rounds, I chanced behind the store where my grandmother worked. I could not believe my eyes! There was a veritable gold mine of empty bottles! Grabbing my trusty wagon, I loaded up as many of the glass containers as I could and wheeled them to the front of the store. I got so much money that I even treated my sisters to a few pieces of candy. Grandmother beamed at me for my hard work.
The next day and the next I returned to the same magical spot ... and there they were again! Pop bottles - at least two dozen of them! With such a stash of wealth, I no longer had to wait for farmers to finish their sodas.
The day after that I returned and found still more bottles. I loaded them into my wagon and took them around to the front of the store. But as I waited with my treasure, I heard Mr. MacIntyre's truck pull up in the back. The truck door groaned open and shut with the sound of rusted hinges, and Mr. MacIntyre came in the back way. He nodded in my direction courteously and then said to my Grandmother, "I'd better load up all those empties you've been talking about. Where are they?"
"Out back," my grandmother replied, then added: "Should be at least eight dozen. My granddaughter's been gathering them from all around the village."
I looked at the treasure in my wagon and realized what I had done: I'd been selling the same empties to my grandmother again and again. It was almost like stealing! Grandmother might lose her job! And she needed her job if we were to make ends meet.
I was scared of Mr. MacIntyre, but I knew I had to say something. I would have to fess up, tell the truth, bite the bullet. They might lock me up for stealing, but at least Grandmother would still have her job. Maybe she could visit me on her days off, if the prison wasn't too far away.
I gulped and quickly exited with my bottles. Mr. MacIntyre looked at me sternly as I met him around the back of the store and quietly explained what had happened. Gradually, as my tears began to flow, a smile came over his face. Then he laughed hard and I began to realize that my Grandmother was not in any trouble.
For the next three days I gathered pop bottles for free to make up for the empties I had sold three times or more. Mr. MacIntyre built a shed for the bottles so some other young entrepreneur would not make the same mistake. I helped him load the bottles into his truck on Saturdays, and in return he gave me a soda at the end of my work.
"Sometimes a thing that seems too good to be true really is," my grandmother often said. For the rest of the year I sought my bottles in the ditches and door to door, canvassing carefully under my grandmother's gaze. It was hard work, but it felt better when I counted out my nickels on the store's counter. And those cream sodas, hard-earned, never tasted sweeter.